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David Ignatius is a columnist for the Washington Post and co-hosts, PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues at washingtonpost.com. He is the author of six novels, including Agents of Innocence (which in my humble opinion is one of the greatest spy tales ever written) and the just-published Body of Lies, a post-9/11 thriller that centers on a CIA effort to bring down a terrorist group carrying out car bombings in Western capitals. I recently asked Ignatius six questions about his new book.
1. This is your first novel in nearly a decade. Why did you decide to return to fiction?
From 2000 to 2004, I was living in France as editor of the International Herald Tribune. To be honest, living the good life in Paris seemed like a better use of my spare time than being closeted with my computer. But I missed writing fiction–especially the way in which the writer’s conscious brain disappears while writing a novel. I like escaping my “self.” Gradually an idea for a new book began to take shape and I got started writing for real in late 2004.
2. Is the book’s main plot–the effort to bring down the terrorist group headed by Suleiman–modeled on a true-life story?
The idea for this book began with a conversation with a senior CIA official. I asked him about the agency’s post-9/11 strategy for dealing with Al Qaeda. He said he hoped to rely on help from intelligence services in the Arab and Islamic world. I asked if he had encountered any superstars in these friendly services, and he mentioned a top Jordanian official. The next time I was in Amman, I asked the palace if I could speak with this particular gentleman, and it was duly arranged. From those conversations, I began to sketch a portrait of my character Hani Salaam, the imaginary chief of my Jordanian General Intelligence Department.
The novel is about deception, and I drew on some real examples. The Jordanians, working with the British and American, have been especially skillful in using their penetrations of hostile groups to sow deception and distrust. Their deception operations against the Abu Nidal Organization were so successful that they basically caused the group to implode. The Abu Nidal operatives were literally shooting each other. In “Body of Lies,” I imagine how a similar operation against Al Qaeda might be run—and the pitfalls therein.
The other historical root for the book is the famous British World War II deception of the Nazis described in the memoir, “The Man Who Never Was.” The challenge was to convince the Germans that the Allied invasion of southern Europe wouldn’t come through Sicily (as everyone was expecting) but further East in Greece. So the Brits dressed up a corpse to look like a dead officer, an imaginary “Major Martin,” who was carrying super-secret communications about a Greek landing. They floated the body ashore off the Spanish coast, and waited for German intelligence to find the secret documents. The Germans swallowed the lie. My novel opens with a similar “body of lies”—a corpse who has been dubbed “Harry Meeker” and is to be dispatched with a message for the CIA’s imaginary agent in Al Qaeda.
3. The (fictional) head of Jordanian intelligence plays a prominent role in the book and the GID is portrayed as being highly effective. Is the GID as good as its made out to be in the book?
GID directors make mistakes, particularly when they overstep the bounds of intelligence and insert themselves into politics. But from what I know, the GID is very good. They are patient and meticulous in preparing operations, and it helps that they control almost totally the Jordanian operational space. They have run some long-term penetrations of terrorist groups that have probably saved thousands of lives over the years. And they are very good at interrogation—not at beating people up (though human rights groups say that sometimes happens) but at eliciting information through other means.
Here’s an example of GID interrogation techniques that I posted recently on washingtonpost.com: After the horrific hotel bombings in Amman in November 2005, the Jordanians captured the wife of one of the bombers. The chief of the GID’s Al Qaeda branch knew that it was urgent to obtain information quickly. He interrogated the woman himself. He began by saying that women were the source of strength of the Arab and Muslim world—the source of everything that was good and pure. Knowing that she was childless, he addressed her throughout as “Mother.” On a television screen behind him were images of the carnage at the hotels, where dozens of Jordanian families had been killed or wounded.
The Jordanian interrogator asked the distraught woman why she had participated in these terrible acts. She answered that her husband had ordered her to do so. “These acts are against God’s will,” said the interrogator. “Don’t you understand that it is wrong to obey your husband before God?” The woman began to break in that moment. “You need to repent,” the interrogator said. And she did, providing a full confession that helped break up the cell and save many more lives.
4. From reading the book, one gets the sense that you feel the real-life CIA has become too bureaucratic and too unwilling to take risks. Does that in fact mirror your view of today’s agency?
I do think the CIA has become so politicized—so surrounded by second-guessers and special pleaders—that it sometimes has difficulty doing the essential task of an intelligence service, which is stealing the other guys’ secrets. That’s what we sometimes forget—a spy agency’s job is systematically to break the laws of other countries by encouraging their citizens to commit treason. We have layers and layers of legal and congressional oversight, and I guess much of it is necessary, but it doesn’t change that unpleasant reality.
In the news business, we know that reporters learn by experimenting and taking risks. As an editor, I used to say that we needed to give young reporters the “freedom to fail”—that is, let them take risks that sometimes don’t work out. That’s much harder in the intelligence world, where an operation that goes bad can mean imprisonment or even death. And in journalism, we don’t have to cope with congressional oversight committees, thank God. But still, some of that innovative, risk-taking spirit is essential.
Our CIA has a permanent “kick-me” sign on its backside. It gets attacked equally these days from the right and from the left. CIA officials put up with a degree of public abuse that would be unimaginable in the case of military officers. Is it any surprise that we have a spy service that is sometimes hidebound and cautious to a fault?
5. Several characters in the book that work with the CIA end up being killed by terrorists, and there’s not much soul-searching or concern about their deaths on the part of their agency handlers. Is there room for morality in these types of intelligence operations?
In all my novels, I have struggled with an issue I will call “seduction and abandonment.” I think in some ways that is America’s fatal flaw in intelligence operations overseas. We encourage people to risk their lives for our vision of a better world, and then when the going gets tough, we leave them hanging. We did that at the Bay of Pigs, in Vietnam, in Lebanon in the early 1980s, in Nicaragua with the Contras—and now we are in the process of doing it again in Iraq. Basically, it’s immoral—this process of making promises that we as a nation are not prepared to keep. The lesson for me is that we need to be more careful about blowing into countries with big ideas about democracy and social change if we are not prepared to stay the course.
The most direct statement I have made of this problem was in my first novel, Agents of Innocence, which was published in 1987. At the end of the book, a character named Fuad who has been recruited into the CIA’s machinations in Lebanon, says ruefully:
Americans are not hard men. Even the CIA has a soft heart. You want so much to achieve good and make the world better, but you do not have the stomach for it. And you do not know your limitations. You are innocence itself. You are the agents of innocence. That is why you make so much mischief. You come into a place like Lebanon as if you were missionaries. You convince people to put aside their old customs and allegiances and to break the bonds that hold the country together. With your money and your schools and your cigarettes and music, you convince us that we can be like you. But we can’t. And when the real trouble begins, you are gone. And you leave your friends, the ones who trusted you most, to die.
Almost every word of that would apply in Iraq.
Intelligence agencies are sometimes asked to do unpleasant things. But unless they operate in a larger moral context, they become thugs—little better than the old KGB. In addition to being immoral, this strategy is likely to be ineffective. Other people make better thugs than we do.
6. In the book, it is suggested that if the CIA could just nab Suleiman it would deal a crippling blow to international terrorism. Could one well-planned operation really have such a powerful impact?
I don’t think there’s a single knockout punch in the struggle against terrorism. People will have to read the book, but I think that’s one lesson of Body of Lies. That said, I do think that well-planned, long-term operations can have a big impact. And I think that America’s ability to use digital communications technology is one of the few real advantages we have in the asymmetric struggle against terrorism. That needs to be carefully monitored, but it seems to me that it’s at least as important as the “Ultra” code-breaking operations were to Britain during World War II. People ask me whether the agency is operating some of the false fronts and dangles that my novel describes, and my answer is: I hope so.
More from Ken Silverstein:
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”